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Theater Review: “The Totalitarians” at Woolly Mammoth

Emily Townley stars in this sharply funny show about the absurdities of modern political campaigns.

Emily Townley as Penny Easter in The Totalitarians. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

The Totalitarians is the kind of hilarious but unsettling show in which a character gurgling on his own blood while he’s trying to make a speech gets huge laughs from the audience.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s bizarre, satirical and raucous play, making its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, focuses on a frustrated speechwriter charged with trying to make a hapless political candidate electable. Penny Easter (Emily Townley) is brash, guffaw-prone, slightly dim, and wholly inexperienced, complete with bedazzled jeans and a husband she can’t seem to stop mentioning is homosexual. But put some silky, charged, and unconventional words from Francine (Dawn Ursula) in her mouth, and she’s electrifying. Maybe too electrifying. Are larger, more sinister forces at work, trying to get her elected? For much of the play, the audience isn’t totally sure, but that doesn’t stop Francine’s husband, Jeffrey (Sean Meehan), from going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, with a little help from an idealistic and charismatic patient of his named Ben (Nicholas Loumos).

The Totalitarians is sharp, briskly paced, and very funny. Director Robert O’Hara has created a world that feels slightly futuristic yet entirely familiar. Misha Kachman’s set, accented with video screens often displaying larger-than-life photos of a slick-looking Penny, helps lend to the show’s creepy vibe of fascism.

Well-drawn characters, such as the driven Francine and the pitiable Ben, make the show feel unpredictable and fresh. The least convincing of these figures, admittedly, is Meehan’s susceptible-to-influence Jeffrey, whose actions are the toughest to buy as credible—which is saying something in a show where other characters can pull off filming political protest videos in pink ski masks or shooting people with arrows with gusto. He’s well-balanced, though, by the complex Francine, who attempts to weigh her career ambitions and complicated personal life against the moral complexities facing any speechwriter whose muse might be up to no good, politically. 

And then there’s Penny. The success of The Totalitarians rests largely in the hands of Emily Townley, who positively glows as the nightmare political candidate/former roller girl champion who wants to unite Nebraska. Though on paper she seems to share some DNA with a Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann figure, she’s a fully realized creation that others underestimate at their peril. Townley is a force to reckon with in the role; it’s a performance that’s captivating—and slightly terrifying—to behold.

The Totalitarians is at Woolly Mammoth through June 29. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($60 to $87.50) are available through Woolly’s website.